The Dark Side of Transition: Violence against Muslims in Myanmar
1 Oct 2013
Unless there is an effective government response and change in societal attitudes, violence against Myanmar’s Muslim communities could spread, jeopardising the country’s transition as well as its standing in the region and beyond.
“At a moment of historic reform and opening, Myanmar cannot afford to become hostage to intolerance and bigotry.”
Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director.
In its latest report, The Dark Side of Transition: Violence against Muslims in Myanmar, the International Crisis Group examines the recent violence against Muslim communities. Anti-Muslim violence is nothing new in Myanmar but has been growing in the past two years, the product of reduced authoritarian controls and a history of intolerant Burman/Buddhist nationalism. Issued on the day President Thein Sein begins a visit to Rakhine State, the centre of much violence, this report urges a stronger government effort to combat bigotry and protect its Muslim population.
The report’s major findings and recommendations are:
- Frustration and anger built up under years of authoritarianism, together with a legacy of Burman nationalism, are now being directed towards Muslims by a populist political force that cloaks itself in religious respectability and moral authority. The lifting of state controls and the greater availability of modern communications create a much greater risk of violent outbreaks.
- The violence has regional implications. There has been a sharp increase in the number of Rohingya Muslims making the treacherous journey by boat from Rakhine State to other countries in the region, prompting public criticism of Myanmar from some of those countries. Intercommunal tensions have also spilled over Myanmar’s borders with the murder of Myanmar Buddhists in Malaysia and related violence in other countries. There have also been threats of jihad against Myanmar and plots and attacks against Myanmar or Buddhist targets in the region.
President Thein Sein has spoken publicly on the dangers of the violence and announced a “zero-tolerance” approach. The police response has been improving somewhat, with faster and more effective interventions bringing incidents under control more quickly. And after some delay, perpetrators of these crimes are being prosecuted and imprisoned. However, much more needs to be done. Beyond improved riot-control training and equipment for police, broader reform of the police service is necessary so that it can be more effective and trusted, particularly at the community level. Finally, humanitarian access to those displaced by the violence, principally Muslims, must be ensured.
“A security response is not sufficient. The government and society at large must also do more to combat extremist rhetoric, in public, in the media and online”, says Jim Della-Giacoma, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “Political, religious and community leaders need to condemn hate speech”.
“At a moment of historic reform and opening, Myanmar cannot afford to become hostage to intolerance and bigotry”, says Della-Giacoma. “Those who are spreading messages of intolerance and hatred must not go unchallenged. Otherwise, this issue could come to define the new Myanmar, tarnishing its international image and threatening the success of its transition away from decades of authoritarianism”.